»  National Review Online

May 9th, 2007

  From A to B


Let the traffic of the world yield to silence and peace!
                   —— Du Fu, "Night in the pavilion"

Fat chance. Traffic is always increasing. It's a law of nature. Automobile ownership increases steadily, everywhere, most of the time, the exception being during recessions. The average American home now has more automobiles (1.9) than licensed drivers (1.8). Road space, on the other hand, when it increases at all, does so in fits and starts, and usually in gimmicky ways — by the addition of special carpool lanes to expressways, for instance.

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed that people who drive into Manhattan should pay for the privilege. He is suggesting an $8 charge for cars, $21 for trucks. This would be cheaper for cars than the $16 charge already levied on people driving into the central business district of London, but it's enough to have got New Yorkers grumbling.

My only question here is: What took so long? It is a pretty good rule of public policy that people should have to pay what a public amenity costs, with public subsidies always minimized and carefully justified. In the case of roads, we don't. A 2002 Cato report said that:

In 2000 … governments collected about $102 billion in gas taxes and user fees but spent about $124 billion in capital, maintenance and law enforcement — a subsidy of $22 billion. The roads were used for about 2.6 trillion passenger miles for a subsidy of .5 cents per passenger mile. Total [mass] transit subsidies were about the same, $23.5 billion. But transit was used for only 50 billion passenger miles, resulting in a whopping 49.2 cents of subsidy per passenger mile traveled.

I live in an outer-outer suburb of New York City and tool around happily on local roads, paying my New York State road tax annually, my commuter parking fee for the local railroad station, and of course gasoline and property taxes. Once in a while, for no extra charge, I drive into Manhattan. I take the Long Island Expressway to Exit 15, negotiate a few local streets, then ride over the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan. Total fees: $0. (If I took the Queens-Midtown Tunnel to get across the East River, it would cost me $4.50. Being cheap, I don't.)

Once in Manhattan, I try to find street parking, but most often fail. So I pay a stupendous fee — never less than $20 — to a parking garage. I suppose the firm that runs the garage pays taxes to the city; but other than my indirect share of those taxes, I get my slice of the Big Apple for free. It's not fair.

Would I still drive in to Manhattan if there was an $8 entry fee? Probably not. That's the point of pricing, though. You can pay to get your amenity, or not pay and not get it. Liberty!

Still they grumble, even on the political Right. Here is a Heritage Foundation writer on FoxNews.com:

The mayor calls it a "congestion fee." In fact, it's a tax and a penalty for using a motor vehicle. The revenue would go to mass transit, not to roads and bridges.

It's not the fees themselves that vex this writer, but the fact that Mayor Bloomberg wants to spend the revenues on improving mass transit, rather than the roads and bridges that the fee-payers are actually using. The writer has a point. Just as it's generally a good thing for people to pay what a public amenity costs, it's a good thing for their payments to be spent on maintaining and improving that amenity, rather than boosting the subsidy to a different amenity that — see above — is already over-subsidized.

Traffic control in general is, I often reflect when driving around, one of the more ill-thought-out aspects of public policy. It has long been known, for example, that all-way stops are less of a hindrance to traffic flow than traffic lights, and in most cases just as safe. I would guess that at least half the traffic lights in my town could be thus replaced. It doesn't happen, though.

Replacing stop signs by yield signs can also improve traffic flow without, in many locations, any safety downside, but that is hardly ever done either. In fact there are so few yield signs in my neck of the woods that drivers seem not to understand them. This is especially apparent at my town's one traffic circle. The place is festooned with yield signs, but it's a happy day when anyone yields to anyone. (Traffic circles are also great improvers of traffic flow, but are hardly ever seen in the U.S.A. — except, for some reason, in Massachusetts.)

Not only are traffic lights often an expensive superfluity, there seems to be a conspiracy to make them as annoying as possible. In my state you are permitted to make a right turn at red lights (except in New York City), after coming to a stop, of course. This law was apparently passed in order to generate employment for people who make and install signs saying NO TURN ON RED, it now being a rare traffic-lighted intersection that does not have such a sign.

Annoyances of that kind are of course trivial by comparison with the greatest annoyance of all: the jammed expressway. Around here we refer bitterly to our major regional artery as "the Long Island Parking Lot." I have wasted untold hours of my life sitting fuming on the L.I.E. Yet I see from U.S. News & World Report that my county ranks only 31 in their table of "The Worst Counties" for commuting. I suppose that is because we are far enough out from the Great Wen that most of our automobile commuting is to neighboring suburbs. That, though, is another problem, as major-road systems were originally designed with city-to-suburb travel in mind, not suburb-to-suburb.

At least there are technological fixes available. Sensor technology, computer processing power, and the sophistication of algorithms are now up to the task of real-time traffic control, as Los Angeles has proved with its Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control System. "Los Angeles drivers spend less time in traffic now than they did a decade ago," the USN&W report tells us.

Those processors and algorithms still have to work with existing roads, though. They also have to cope with 150,000 extra people adding themselves to the city every year, a number not totally unrelated to irrational immigration policies and lax immigration enforcement. In L.A., as in Long Island, we shall be singing along with James Taylor for a few years yet:

Damn! this traffic jam.
How I hate to be late.
It hurts my motor to go so slow.
Damn! this traffic jam.
Time I get home my supper'll be cold.
Damn! this traffic jam …